By Mel GreenbergUNCASVILLE, Conn.
– The Connecticut Sun easily found answers Friday night to any problems poised by the Detroit Shock, specifically in the closing minutes, to take a 75-67 victory in the Mohegan Sun Arena and close out their WNBA Eastern Conference playoff semifinals with a 2-0 sweep.
The triumph advanced Connecticut, the overall No. 1 seed, to next week’s best-of-three conference finals against the Indiana Fever, beginning Thursday night, in the Midwest.
The Fever closed out their semifinals series on Thursday night at home with a 2-0 sweep of the New York Liberty.
Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen, the second year pro out of Minnesota, led Connecticut with 27 points, one short of her overall career high, and consistently found ways to get to the free throw line where she was 15-for-17.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who played for the Philadelphia Rage in the defunct American Basketball League in the late 1990s, had 16 points and eight rebounds. She also made the game-clinching shot, a 14-foot jumper with 21.9 seconds left to play that extended Connecticut’s slim three-point advantage to 72-67.
“Lucky, very lucky,” McWilliams-Franklin said of her feeling on the court after the shot dropped through the net. “We hit a bunch of lucky shots in Detroit and that was one lucky shot we had tonight.
“It was a play designed for me, so I had to shoot, no matter what,” McWilliams-Franklin said with a sigh of relief. “When Ruth (Riley) is out, most of their defenders keep their hands down, so I know I could shoot over them. I was worried whether it was going to get to rim or not. Not whether it had enough height.’’
Prior to the game, McWilliams-Franklin received the WNBA’s Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award determined by a national media panel.
The clutch basket by the WNBA veteran came on the end of a possession that began with 7-foot-2 center Margo Dydek making a key block of Detroit rookie Kara Braxton’s four-foot attempt.
Dydek was acquired by Connecticut in a draft-day deal in April with San Antonio that allowed the Silver Stars to grab rookie Katie Feenstra, who starred at Liberty University.
Former University of Connecticut star Nykesha Sales made up for an inefficient night on the offensive end – she had five points on 1-for-8 shooting from the field – by grabbing 12 rebounds.
Connecticut never trailed and led by as many as 14 points in the game after getting off to a quick start, courtesy of Whalen’s eight points in the early minutes that included a pair of 3-pointers.
However, the Sun began to fade near the finish until Dydek’s move stopped the Shock surge and Connecticut went on to erase their 1-3 effort that had occurred against the Shock in the regular season.
"No one in this locker room thought we were underdogs," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said of cautionary predictions suggesting Detroit would prevail in the series.
It’s the second straight year the Shock has received an early exit in the playoffs after capturing the 2003 championship.
Last year, the Shock was eliminated by New York in the third game on a shot at the buzzer.
“Last year was more discouraging than this year because we lost to an inferior team in the New York Liberty,” Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said. “This year, I thought Connecticut was the most consistent team all year long.”
Laimbeer was undaunted in defeat, however.
“This is our time. This is the Detroit Shock’s time,” Laimbeer said of a team that had been inconsistent after a strong start back in late May and early June.
“We believe that we are the best basketball team out there. We have a very talented group and they have to want to go out there and just take the championship. That’s how it’s going to have to be. They have to go out there and take the sucker.”
Laimbeer seemed to find several different ways to suggest in code that he wasn’t thrilled with the officiating that limited the Shock’s ability to execute its physical style of play.
Of course, even if the former NBA Detroit Piston Bad Boy was saying his team will return to fight another day, there’s always the question of whether that will be true of Laimbeer, himself, who’s name was connected during the summer with several rumors involving NBA coaching jobs, including the New York Knicks.
The Sun will return next week to fight again, and the Indiana series, featuring the Fever’s Tamika Catchings, will be quite competitive.
Thibault spoke of his team’s progression the past three years after the Sun moved here from a former existence as the Orlando Miracle.
“I’m so proud of the maturity they’ve shown,” Thibault spoke of outrebounding the WNBA’s top team on the boards and getting to the free throw line. “It says a lot.” Sparks Number Up – Again
Out West, Sacramento continued its habit of having Los Angeles’ number after the Monarchs eliminated the Sparks, 2-0, in the conference finals for the second straight year.
Sacramento earned its best prize of the day by pulling away midway through the second half after receiving two WNBA postseason awards prior to the opening tip.
Monarchs coach John Whisenant was named coach of the year by a nationwide media panel after leading Sacramento to its first West regular season title and second best record overall with a 25-9 mark behind Connecticut’s 26-8.
Second-year pro Nicole Powell, a former Stanford star, was voted by the same panel as the WNBA’s most improved player after moving from the Charlotte Sting to Sacramento in an offseason trade.
Sacramento will meet either the former-time WNBA champion Houston Comets or the defending champion Seattle Storm for the West title in a best-of-three series.
The Comets and Storm meet in a decisive game three Saturday night in Seattle.
Whisenant received 25 of a possible 50 votes in the coach balloting.
He was followed by Connecticut’s Thibault (19), who was also last year’s runnerup to Minnesota’s Suzie McConnell Serio; Houston’s Van Chancellor (3), Indiana’s Brian Winters (1), Phoenix’ Carrie Graf (1), and New York’s Pat Coyle (1).
In the most improved category, Powell received 20 of 49 votes, followed by Seattle’s Janell Burse (13), New York’s Ann Wauters (6), Connecticut’s Taj McWilliams-Franklin (2), Phoenix’s Kamila Vodichkova (2), while Washington Mystics point guard Alana Beard, Houston center Michelle Snow, Sacramento’s DeMya Walker, a Rancocas Valley High graduate, and Connecticut’s Lindsay Whalen each received 1 vote. Vacancy Alert
Whoever voted for Phoenix’s Carrie Graf, that’s apparently not a sentiment that was shared by Mercury management, which on Friday announced her contract would not be renewed and she would return to coaching in her native Australia.
Although the WNBA promotional machine might be tempted to run a contest in which the winner gets a chance to coach second-year pro Diana Taurasi, the Mercury will probably have other ways to go about getting a replacement, although letting Taurasi be a player-coach is not one of them.
Assistants with previous WNBA head coaching experience include San Antonio’s Brian Agler, Houston’s Carleen Thompson, New York’s Marianne Stanley, Washington’s Marynell Meadors, Minnesota’s Nancy Darsch, and Indiana’s Lin Dunn.
Houston longtime assistant Kevin Cook is another possibility, and from the broadcast wing, Nancy Lieberman, who coached the Detroit Shock, might be interested, or former UCLA all-American Ann Meyers might be approached.
Two outstanding candidates currently in collegiate retirement are former Auburn coach Joe Ciampi, and former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore.
Ciampi, who comes from an Italian background, might bright the same personality mix with Taurasi that existed in her collegiate days with another person of Italian heritage – Geno Auriemma.
Of course, the trend these days is to find someone from the NBA world, so it will be interesting to see who’s name pops this time around.
Los Angeles and Charlotte made late season replacements, so if Joe Bryant is not retained by the Sparks nor Muggsy Bogues by Charlotte, that will mean at least two more openings will exist. Living La Playoff Loca
So what person associated with sports who is seen often in the state of Connecticut popped out of a stretch limo Friday night alongside an entrance to the Mohegan Casino-Entertainment Complex to attend the Sun-Shock game?
Former UConn star Diana Taurasi?
Her former Huskies coach Geno Auriemma?
WNBA president Donna Orender?
Inquirer columnist and ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith?
Quite frankly, it was yours truly.
Before the home office accounting department reaches for the medicine cabinet, it must be noted that the reasonably-priced hotel we are working out of on the overnight provides complimentary limo service back and forth to the complex and we just couldn’t resist the temptation to take advantage.
On the other hand, it would be nice to be hooked up to the advertised free high speed internet access at the moment to finish this blog, instead of a phone connection as slow as the traffic flow we navigated in the last 100 miles.
Incidentally, several fascinating sites on the way up here along the Merritt Parkway were gas stations, whose prices were still under $3.00. I’ll let you know if that became a thing of the immediate past in the next report.